In the early 1990s, a series of dramatic historical narratives called Heritage Minutes began airing on Canadian television and before feature films in cinemas across the country. The short films told the stories of famous Canadians like Laura Secord and of transformative events such as the Halifax explosion – edutainment intended to transform a woefully uninformed public.
Two decades later, University of Toronto professor Molly Shoichet hopes to do the same for Canadian science. In mid-May, Dr. Shoichet launched a social media campaign called Research2Reality that showcases Canada’s research stars.
“I felt there was a little bit of a void in raising the Canadian flag for research,” says Dr. Shoichet. “We’re known as a country of natural resources, democracy and acceptance, but not so much as a country of innovation.”
At the centre of the Research2Reality project is a collection of videos, each about two minutes in length, that come in two types: short narratives on a single topic and interviews called “The Orange Chair Sessions.”
The films tie together research from Canadian universities and show how university research moves from labs into, for example, quantum computers and cardiac patients’ hearts. As each video wraps up, the viewer can dig deeper into the research through text and other videos.
Dr. Shoichet chewed on the idea for several years. The project finally began to take shape when she met Mike MacMillan, a producer and founder of Lithium Studios, a Toronto-based company that makes narrative films.
She had heard over and over that the public didn’t care about science. “I don’t believe it. They just don’t know about it,” she says. She knew from her experience speaking to church, alumni and student groups that people were eager to hear scientists speak, but they had to go out and find events. Instead, she says, Research2Reality goes to where the people are on social media.
The popularity of social media success stories like IFLScience (20 million Facebook likes), AsapScience (3.8 million YouTube channel subscribers), and the world’s favourite astronaut, Chris Hadfield (1.4 million Twitter followers), suggests that Dr. Shoichet is right.
“We’ve developed a reasonably high level of science literacy and respect for science … and a history of supporting science and scientists, but it can always get better,” says Sally Aitken, who studies tree genetics and climate change at the University of British Columbia and stars in one of the videos.
Dr. Shoichet is a bit of a star herself. The polymer chemist and biomaterials engineer invents new material called hydrogels that deliver drugs and cells to injured body parts, including brain, spine and eyes. She is one of five winners of the L’Oreal-UNESCO prize for women in science in 2015, a top international science award.
Six universities – the University of Toronto, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, Western University, University of Waterloo and McMaster University – have joined the project to date. Other partners include the Ontario government, Discovery Science and the Globe and Mail newspaper.
“The videos become the start of a conversation,” says Dr. Shoichet. “We hope to draw on imagination and connect the dots to future research.”